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The Improlific Appetite

Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-century England by Louis Crompton (University of California Press, 419 pp., $24.95)

The central subject of this book is declared in its subtitle rather than in its title. Homophobia (fear and hatred of homosexuals) played a particular role in English life. No executions for homosexual acts are recorded in Continental Europe after 1791, but the figures remained constant at about two a year in England for the three decades after 1806. Executions for every other capital offense declined dramatically. As for Byron's role, Louis Crompton admits in his introduction that his account of the poet is "overwhelmingly indebted" to the work of three predecessors (G. Wilson Knight, Leslie Marchand, and Doris Langley Moore); Crompton does not try to explain Byron's poetry by his sexuality. In fact, it is Crompton's account of a rather different figure—Jeremy Bentham—and his response to the homophobic current that distinguishes this book, successfully establishing a new and important context for old material.

Early 19th-century England dramatized its righteousness by projecting sexual irregularity onto the Continent, and particularly onto France. Homosexuality became, according to this version, a Catholic and anarchistic disposition. Public executions and pillories, which gave despised classes such as prostitutes the chance to vent their feelings on a perfectly defenseless victim, had a tonic and purgative effect on mobs that might otherwise have expressed their feeling with less consideration for the status quo. Acquitted defendants needed a bodyguard 30 or 40 strong to escape without injury. Men could die on the pillory (the prescribed punishment in the absence of proven penetration and emission), particularly if they made the mistake of being below average height, so that in effect they hanged. They stood a good chance, whatever their height, of having bones broken or an eye knocked out.

The mythical division of Europe into a Protestant woman-loving north and a degenerate Catholic south may seem antique as a notion, but Crompton points out that it supplied a basis for Nazi racial analysis, and thus contributed to extermination of homosexuals attempted by the Third Reich. Wealth and high birth, moreover, were no protection against anti-homosexual feeling or legislation; the most notorious casualty of homophobia, driven to exile and ostracized, was the richest man in England, William Beckford.

In this time and this place, a bisexual poet became one of the most famous men in the world. What is surprising is not how little evidence has survived, but how much. In Byron the confessional urge and the need for self-preservation combined to produce a style of hinting mysteriousness that keeps its secrets suspended. Even those of his circle most obsessed with discretion (like John Cam Hobhouse, shown by this book fully to have shared Byron's sexual interests) kept documents if anything more dangerous than those they destroyed.

Crompton has the luxury, unusual for a gay scholar (and that throughout is his viewpoint), of downplaying much of the evidence and still producing a startling and authoritative picture. He corrects Harold Bloom's overcompensating description of Byron as "basically homosexual." Byron's interest in his own sex was confined to his late school days, university years, and early travels (up to 1811), with a brief reprise in the last six months of his life (1823-1824). His interests were, strictly speaking, pederastic, since his love-objects were all 15 when he became infatuated with them, though he was little more than 15 himself when he fell for John Edlestone at Cambridge, when Edlestone was a choirboy.

Edlestone’s death, of consumption, inspired the "Thyrza" lyrics that appeared in the Childe Harold volume. They established for Byron an acceptable persona as a grieving lover, whose controversial opinions on religion and politics could be regarded as distractions. Byron had opted to falsify the object of his affection rather than falsify the emotion itself. No other choice was open to a poet in his position. The contradiction of being feted, especially by women, for poems commemorating his love for a man, in a society that executed lovers of their own sex, was only the most extreme of those that attended him.

Louis Crompton ascribes to his bisexuality only an aggravating role in the formation of Byron's persona, but he cites enough evidence to suggest that it was of central importance. Byron's half-sister Augusta described to his wife a change in his temperament during his school days, and seems to have mentioned it to Byron himself at the time, to judge by a letter in which he admits to the change, but lists only causes not to be blamed for it. Byron's temperament, an excess of bitter melancholy surrounded by qualities of the most brilliant extroversion, would seem a plausible response to the discovery that a profound element in himself conflicted with a profound element of English law and public feeling, so that his worldly position (apart from anything else) would always be precarious.

When Byron came to reveal his irregular past, it was to Lady Caroline Lamb, a woman almost absurdly unsuited to the role of confidante. If she was unconventional enough to hear his confession without protest while they were lovers, she was also above any scruple in her use of the power he had given her. After their affair had ended, she invaded Byron's quarters in his absence and wrote in a book the message "Remember me!" Her choice of book. Beckford's Vathek, shows that she was reminding Byron of Beckford's fate as well as her own knowledge. Byron's wife may have stumbled on a similar weapon, if Wilson Knight is right in thinking that she found out from her lawyer that anal relations, even within marriage, were punishable by death. If being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind, then knowing that your estranged wife has the power of life or death over you must darken the persona wonderfully. Louis Crompton is skeptical about the possibility, and relegates it to a footnote.

Crompton treats with confidence notoriously tricky areas, like the relationship of romantic friendship to sexual love. He can afford to make out a moderate case, because his book aims for depth rather than novelty in its treatment of Byron. The chief source of that depth, and a cause for wonder in its own right, is the material on homophobia from the Jeremy Bentham archives held by University College, London. Bentham turns out to have been obsessed with hostile attitudes to homosexuality.

There is no way of establishing whether Bentham had a personal stake in liberalizing attitudes, since at the time there was as much to fear from keeping an open mind, which amounted to an open invitation to dangerous gossip, as from being personally involved. Bentham's occasional panics prove nothing either way. In any case, his struggles with the issue gain from their stubbornly rational character and their freedom from sentimental appeals.

Bentham wrote 50 pages of notes in 1774, a longer formal essay in 1785, 200 more pages in 1814 and 1816, lengthy speculations on homosexuality and the Bible in 1818, and a final synopsis on sodomy law reform in 1824. Bentham's writings on the subject, here first fully explored and surely demanding separate publication, would amount to a substantial book, and that in an age when anything approaching erudition was itself, in this area, suspect.

There was plenty of contradiction in the laws to alert a jurist like Bentham. According to the naval statutes, it was a lesser offense to sell the secrets of the fleet than to encroach upon a sailor's chastity. The judges of the King's Bench ruled in 1779 that to extort money with accusations of homosexuality was equivalent to highway robbery at pistol point, a striking instance of one part of the legal system assessing another part (the sodomy laws) as being a weapon against which the citizen was defenseless.

Still less as a philosopher, a utilitarian, and a hedonist could Bentham fathom the intensity of anti-homosexual feeling. Although such feeling posed as a moral sentiment, it seemed to him to have nothing in common with the ascetic tradition (itself unappealing to Bentham), which in any case expressed contempt for pleasure, and not loathing. He was anxious to distinguish the teachings of Christ from the obsessions of Paul with which they had become encrusted. It appalled Bentham that a difference in taste could be turned into a principle of destruction, just as it had appalled him when a female relative had asked him to kill a toad simply because she found it ugly.

As his speculations gained momentum, he developed a formidable array of counterarguments. Even his least liberal proposal (intended as a sop to public opinion)—that the punishment for homosexual acts be banishment, but with a high standard of proof (two witnesses, neither of them a principal or an accessory)—compares favorably with the current dispensation in many countries. The publication of Malthus's essay on population in 1798, moreover, gave Bentham more ammunition. If overpopulation was a threat, then sexual acts that produced no children could gain immensely in prestige. According to utilitarian theory, sexual pleasure was in any case a good that could only be spent, not hoarded.

Bentham's theorizing was heretical from the first; there was no prospect of his finding refuge in a community of like-minded thinkers. This led to great nervous strain, and to moments of desperate doubt as well as desperate humor in his notes. Still, he was spared the compromise that becomes possible in a less evenly intolerant society.

Bentham, in fact, worked through much of what was to become the agenda of gay liberation. He dropped a hostile vocabulary in favor of a neutral one—his chosen phrase, capitalizing on the cachet of non-reproduction, being "the improlific appetite." He criticized as prejudicial the negative portrayals of homosexuals in fiction (Smollett, Fielding, Wieland, Cumberland). His project involved grasping nettle after nettle: he even tackled the issue of gay teachers (which is still controversial). He discounts as unlikely erotic involvements in ordinary schoolroom settings, but suggests that a private pupil might improve as a student if his tutor was attentive. If the boy took advantage of this situation, his parents should break off the affair.

This approximation to classical Greek practice is all the more remarkable in that Bentham was ignorant of Plato; English homophobic censorship had operated with great effectiveness. He could see the desperate shifts that were needed in conventional rhetoric to reconcile the high esteem in which the ancient world was held with the disgust aroused by some of its most representative practices, but he did not, like Shelley, read the Symposium in Greek. (Shelley, though, had his share of conventional feeling; he could not reconcile himself to anal intercourse among the Greeks, for reasons of discomfort and indignity, and preferred to think that their orgasms were spontaneous.)

Bentham's solitary project gives Louis Crompton's book the perfect counterweight to its hero. Byron loved and suffered, which in a sense anyone can do; and he equivocated. Bentham sat and wrote against the grain of his time. That two such opposed figures, an impulsive poet and a painstaking philosopher, should have been so deeply affected by the same hostile current gives Byron and Greek Love what such a book needs if it is not to be dismissed as special pleading: the guarantee that an authentically major issue has been rescued from the margins.

Madame de Stael suggested that her era should be called not the age of Byron but the age of Bentham. Byron himself was less impressed: when he was given a copy of Bentham's Springs of Action, he dashed it to the floor, saying, "What does the old fool know of springs of action—my __ __ __ has more spring to it." This book proves him wrong.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.